What happens when fine dining restaurants offer traditional Bangladeshi Iftar?
"It is like a festival. Every day, we sit down at the iftar table, talk about our busy lives, and feast on at least 15 different iftar items with the whole family," said Asif Zaman Srizon, 25, a city dweller from Shantinagar, Dhaka.
"The satisfaction that comes from eating these traditional iftar items never gets us bored," he added.
They never let the locals down, starting from the tantalizing flavours of the rich Kebabs, Tikka, Jali, Shami, Kofta, and Doi Bora. The exquisite taste of deep-fried delicacies, mouthwatering kebabs, and thirst-quenching Rooh Afza drinks attracts food lovers from far and wide, reminding us that even though Dhaka has changed much in recent years, the tasty dishes have stayed the same.
During this time, Muslim devotees always get to add something special and new to their iftar menu.
Due to the recent price hikes of daily commodities, this Ramadan witnessed iftar items with higher price tags, each costing at least Tk 5 to Tk 50 more. However, this did not stop the locals from buying their favourite foods from roadside stalls, makeshift eateries, and fine dining.
Soon after the Asr prayer, the roads of Dhaka, including the ever-famous Chawkbazar, transform into ever-energised food hubs of traditional delicacies, including items like Shahi Parota, Shahi Jilapi, Haleem, Biryani, Kashmiri Porata, and so on.
Md. Shahazada, a local of Green Road, said, "We usually arrange Iftar at home, but it has become a staple for us to buy items from outside. It is as if we must decorate the table with colorful and scrumptious iftar items as much as possible."
However, Md Shahazada was skeptical when his son asked him to hold a family iftar at a fine dining restaurant. When asked about his reason for being cynical, he said, "I mean, with prices already being high this year, why should I waste Tk 600–800 on a platter menu only to pay for side dishes like Beguni, Piyaju, and some fruit items? I can buy more fruit if I just go to the fruit market. Yes, there is good food like chicken and rice, but adding traditional Iftar food and fruits to the package just doesn't seem right."
When we talk about fine dining, it is simply a restaurant experience of a higher quality and greater formality. The atmosphere is usually more elegant, and the food is served more formally and pleasingly.
Nevertheless, in recent years, Dhaka has seen many such restaurants, like Kahve, Urban Spoon, Steak House, InterContinental, Kiyoshi, Steak Out, Spicy Ramna, Chef's Table Courtside, Kabab Factory, and many more.
To keep up with the iftar craze of Dhakaiyas, many fine dining in Dhaka have tried incorporating many iftar items like Beguni, Bora, Pakora, and many other items starters to break the fast. They have also included sides of fruits like bananas, dates, pineapples, guavas, and watermelons. The prices there range between Tk 400 and Tk 1000. Not to mention regular Itar item prices were at least 3-4 times higher.
"Recently, I went to a restaurant with my friends for Iftar. We were given the Iftar menu. After looking at the menu for each platter costing more than Tk 800, we got baffled. It felt really annoying to see Shak Bora, pakora, and fruits along with the more traditional Chinese-Indo fried rice and grilled chicken dishes," said Aurnob Ahmed, a 17-year-old teenager from Green Road.
"They could've at least tried to make it into a fruit salad instead of just serving random fruits on a plate. Instead of seeing Beguni and Pakora, I would have loved to see a side of light starter items like Wontons or a Light Sandwich. Moreover, we were not allowed to order from the regular menu, which had much better options, until 7 pm," added Aurnob, who was highly frustrated with his friends about the menu.
After looking around in the bustling Iftar bazaar, we found ourselves with Mr Habib, 48, who owns a makeshift Iftar shop on Green Road. When asked about his opinion on the iftar menus of some high-end restaurants that cost more than Tk 600 and reached Tk 2000 in five-star restaurants, he said, "Son, we have at least 15 different items in our stall, starting from Tk 5 to Tk 400. With Tk 500 in your pocket, the amount you can buy here will be enough to feed at least 15 family members."
"The taste and quality we provide, I believe, are unique to each cook—not that I'm claiming to be unique, but the hard work we put into making every item never fails to deliver the mouthwatering crunch and flavours."
"Come to us, and we can provide far better Dhakaiya hospitality and food," he added.
When asked the same question, Hosne Ara, a homemaker, said, "Yes, once my 23-year-old son brought home Iftar platters from a fine dining restaurant in Dhanmondi for the whole family. It was delicious, but was it Iftar? Where were the traditional Chena, Chola, Pakoras, and Pitha Rolls? It just felt like a normal dinner dish. It did not give me that iftar vibe. For me, without Haleem and Chikon Jilapi, no iftar is complete."
At the end of the day, the decision is up to the eaters as to whether they want to spend Tk 100 on some scrumptious deep-fried delights or on the Tk 600 Iftar menu. It is whatever they, the Muslim devotees, desire to break their fast.
That being said, traditional iftar menus are an integral part of our iftar culture, and fine dining trying to adapt to the local trends is praiseworthy.
Still, factors like price, the rationale behind food selection, and the bursting flavours of the Chawkbazar Iftar significantly affect the customer experience. Again, a fraction of people would rather have Iftar at Sonargoan or Intercontinental. But that's a story for another time.